SQOG - the Sasquatch Blog
****All the posts below are bigtime SPOILERS if you haven't seen, read, or heard the entertainment I am talking about. Look at the post heading for the day and decide if you want to be spoiled on that topic or not.****
-Friday, December 30th, 2011: RED DEAD REDEMPTION - Tragic and Poignant Tale of the West
I’ve never been a huge gamer, though I do enjoy settling down and playing a video every now and then. It took me a full year to find the time to finish RED DEAD REDEMPTION, but wow, what an awesome video game. I’m starting to understand what some people are saying about videogames starting to become works of art. Because how else could you describe this game?! RDR is an open world, and while I have enjoyed following the set missions, I also really enjoy just riding my horse out towards the sunset, delighting in the sounds of the West, figuring out if I want to spend the night playing poker in a bar or settling down in a bed by the river. For someone who loves Westerns as much as I do, this kind of thing is real treat. Every Western tradition is trotted out in this story about a gunfighter named John Marston and his quest to hunt down the members of his former outlaw gang and rescue his family from federal agents. We get guns, trains, sheriffs, hooch, tobacco, carriages, crazy old coots, Mexicans, treasure, dynamite, and so much more. It’s strange for me to express the comfort I get from mounting that horse, hooves pounding on the open road. It’s like getting to spend time exploring the world of my favorite Sergio Leone movie, as if Clint Eastwood were just around the corner. But we also get to see how the Western world is crumbling and how outlaws like Marston and his old gang just don’t fit in this world anymore. One section of the gameplay actually ends with one of the lead members of the gang killing himself rather than allowing himself to be captured by the government. There aren’t Bosses to defeat to get to another level, the storyline plays out patiently over time. I wouldn’t expect that the game designers of GRAND THEFT AUTO would even know the definition of patience, but they really committed themselves to creating something unique in video games. The animation is often amazingly subtle as well. At one point, Marston works closely with a woman named Bonnie who heals him after a particularly violent encounter. They become close, but never romantically, as John is dedicated to his far-away wife. Near the end of the game, Jack introduces Bonnie to his wife, Abigail. As John and Abigail gallop away, the game’s focus stays on Bonnie as she watches them leave. She kicks a little dirt around and watches the horizon long after they have left. With those little moments, we get the sense that Bonnie had really fallen for John and meeting his wife has just crushed the last of Bonnie’s hopes that John might fancy her. It’s a wonderful moment of sad introspection from a normally brassy character, told with no dialogue and just a couple subtle animation movements. Damn well done.
As much fun as I have in this world, I have to also give credit to the writers for creating one of the most interesting endings that I’ve yet seen in a game. And massive spoilers abound from here on out, so don’t read on if you plan on playing the game. Almost all of the gameplay is seen through John’s eyes as he tracks down the outlaws and decides if he is going to be a good man or fall into his old evil patterns. I was surprised when John kills the last outlaw and gets his family back from the government that the game kept going on. The missions become more pedestrian and are largely about John reclaiming his home ranch life and forging stronger relationships with his wife, Abigail, and son, Jack. As we complete missions about wrangling cattle and delivering hay barrels, we see how important it is to Abigail and John that Jack is raised in a better environment so that he won’t have to become an outlaw or a murderer. It’s quiet stuff, but I liked the meandering nature of the ranch life. Then, government soldiers attack the farm, convinced that even retired, Marston is too dangerous to be left alive. John chases his family away, then has a lovely moment to himself in a barn, here at :30, before he goes out to face a dozen armed soldiers. I love this quiet tense time spent here with John, reflecting on the type of man he is trying to become. Especially that last long shot of John’s back, just before he pushes the doors open to meet the soldiers. And then the soldiers actually kill John! Even as his family hovers over him, I kept expecting him to spring back up and recover, but no, the main character that I had been playing for 9 months is freakin’ dead!
Okay, I thought it might end there, but the story keeps going. We flash forward a few years and now we play the game as Jack Marsten, all grown up and looking like his father. One of the saddest things I’ve seen in the game was Jack looking at his father’s simple wood tombstone in the rain, then panning over and seeing Abigail’s sad tombstone right next to his. Tragic stuff. The quiet coda is about Jack hunting down one of the government men who killed his father. He eventually confronts the man, who by this point in time is just an old man fishing in a stream. Jack shoots him dead, then looks down in befuddlement at his gun. He has become exactly what his father had died to prevent; a murdering gunfighter. Then the game ends with Jack walking away, his fate uncertain and tragic. It’s just so damn traumatizing, but brilliant in how far the creators wanted to go in showing the chaos and awfulness of the Old West. Most of the game is spent with the player thinking fondly of how cool the West was when it was just cowboys, horses, and guns. It’s an idealized era in pop culture. But this sad ending is a slap to the face, reminding the player that the American Cowboy Era was not romantic, but mostly brutal, bloody, and tragic. What an awesome gamer turn-around! Yes, you may enjoy this game, but don’t ever forget the price of violence. Wow, truly amazing subtext for a damn video game. I plan on revisiting the RED DEAD REDEMPTION world again. And for those who want a further immersion into this world, please check out this short film created from game footage, directed by John Hillcoat the talented director of one of the great modern Westerns, THE PROPOSITION, and the depressing THE ROAD.
-Thursday, December 29th, 2011: MAGNUM PI - Some Unexpected ARCHER-Inspired Awesome
Ah, Tom Selleck in the prime of his manliness in MAGNUM P.I. Isn’t this just the epitome of 80s awesomeness?! As a budding teenager who was quickly discovering that he was blessed with a hairy chest, Selleck was the man. Alas, my moustache-growing skills took a little longer to develop and I would never be able to grow as magnificent a lip cozy as Selleck. I sometimes feel like fashion in television has circled back on itself. Yes, the fabric and fit are different these days, but I do think that we share more in common with the conservative entertainment fashion of the 50/60s than we do with the go-go 80s. James Dean or Marlon Brando would look cool to us today, with tight jeans and simple T-shirt with maybe a solid bright color jacket to stand out. But damn, there is nothing flattering about television style in the 80s. Yes, MAGNUM P.I. is set in Hawaii, but wow is Selleck put in some pretty damn short shorts and some truly awful floral print shirts. How is it possible for Selleck to still look cool as he is giggling like a blonde schoolgirl while also wearing a short ugly-ass bathrobe?! Today, we make it easy on our stars to look like stars. Selleck had none of that help, yet still pulls off a palpable hairy sense of manliness. Well done man.
I remember watching this show a bunch when I was a kid, but I recently came across a really cool scene that shows that maybe MAGNUM P.I. wasn’t always just a light as air cop show set in Hawaii. The third season opener, a two-parter that chronicles the death of Magnum’s army buddy, Mac, at the hands of a Russian assassin, Ivan., is widely considered to be the best episode of the series. Just before Mac dies in Magnum’s arms, he asks Magnum if he saw the sunrise. In the stunning closing of the episode, Magnum catches up to Ivan, but Ivan doesn’t challenge Magnum. The Russian is confident that Magnum won’t kill an unarmed man in cold blood. As Ivan smugly walks away, Magnum quietly asks him a question, “Ivan. Did you see the sunrise this morning?” A confused Ivan turns around. Magnum slowly raises his gun and shoots Ivan down. Even taken out of context, it’s quite a powerful scene. I love the look on Magnum’s face as he says “Ivan’. He instantly looks older, more haggard, already taking on the emotional burden of shooting someone in cold blood. That’s a damn fine line reading by Selleck. And sure, maybe that close-up on Selleck’s eyes as he turns around is 80s cheese at its finest, it is still pretty badass. And that freeze on the gun fire is straight out of a Sergio Leone movie. Kind of got chills looking at the clip, even in a bit of 80s television nonsense, there are still occasionally moving stories being told.
OK, I have to admit that the only reason I found this clip is from an interview done with the ARCHER cartoon creator about how he copied that MAGNUM P.I. scene nearly shot for shot in the closing scene of the classic ARCHER cancer episode, Terms of Enrampagement. I wrote about that scene back in April on the SQOG, but only now am I learning that it is copied from MAGNUM P.I. Not that I mind the steal, ARCHER manages to put its own spin on the scene by revealing that it’s a scene from Archer’s own movie. And Archer is so totally someone who would idolize Magnum/Tom Selleck. But I like it when a piece of modern entertainment can enlighten me on great entertainment of the past. I’m sure I’m getting some eye-rolling here at my classification of MAGNUM P.I. as ‘great entertainment’, but we have to remember to be kind to the 80s, they just didn’t know any better!
-Wednesday, December 28th, 2011: Book: THE PERSUADER - Jack Reacher
Continuing with my short entry week where nothing is happening, I thought you all might enjoy a couple cool facts I learned from my pal Jack Reacher in the pulpy/trashy book PERSUADER by Lee Childs. I love the Jack Reacher books, they are quick to read, aren’t difficult, and are pretty damn violent. Reacher is an ex-military officer who basically travels America solving problems. KUNG FU for modern times. In this book, Reacher is trying to hired by a bad guy and is forced to play Russian Roulette with 1 live bullet in a 6-rouncd gun chamber. He passes the test, but then to prove how ballsy he is, Reacher keeps spinning the chamber and shooting at his head 6 more times! It’s pretty bad ass and really impresses the villain. But who in their right mind would do that?! A few chapters later, Reacher’s FBI friend expresses the same incredulity, calling him crazy and suicidal for tempting 6 to 1 odds 6 separate times. Reacher calmly replies,
“You’re like most people. You think the odds are six to one. But they’re nearer six hundred to one. Or six thousand. You put a single bullet in a well-made well-maintained gun like that and it would be a miracle if the cylinder came to rest with the bullet near the top. The momentum of the spin always carries it to the bottom. Precision mechanism, a little oil, gravity helps you out. I’m not an idiot. Russian roulette is a lot safer than people think. And it was worth the risk to get hired.”
I love those cool little insights into procedure or military minutiae. Not that I’m going to ever test that theory of course, but still. Fascinating. There was another little fact sprinkled through the book that I found interesting. Reacher is trying to get a gun into a house that has a door metal detector. He passes through the detector by pushing the gun along the ground. He explains his actions by saying,
“Almost all commercial metal detectors have a dead zone right at the bottom. That’s because men’s dress shoes are made with a steel shank in the sole. It gives the shoe flexibility and strength. Metal detectors are designed to ignore shoes. It makes sense, because otherwise they would beep every time a guy with decent footwear passed through.”
Hmm. Makes me feel a lot less secure about government facilities but surprisingly, a lot better about airports where I have to take my shoes off anyways. It reminds me of my college days working during the summers for a clothing store chain in the Midwest. You know how all clothes have that plastic tag on it that will set off the door alarm if you walk through? We learned that if you wrapped both hands around the plastic tag, you could walk right out the front of the store without the alarm going off. Granted, you still had to get the tag off somehow, but it was an interesting little aside. And no, I’m not telling you where I worked! PERSUADER isn’t the best Reacher book I have read (so far that would be DIE TRYING), but any Reacher book that has cool little tidbits like that is aces in my eyes. Though there is a fantastic and brutal fight sequence near the end between Reacher and an enormously muscled dude on steroids that has to be read to be believed. Perfect Christmas reading!
-Tuesday, December 27th, 2011: DANNY TREJO - Bad Ass
What a ridiculous week. I can’t quite comprehend why I am here at work between Christmas and New Years when the rest of the world seems to be sleeping and relaxing. Oh well, in the spirit of the end of 2011 and a week of catch-up and rest, this is going to be a week of very short entries while I work on catching up on some of my overdue longer ones. And I am really not one who enjoys doing ‘Top 10’ lists, ain’t my style. I need a bit of break, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t still leave you with something cool and interesting for the day. It just means that you won’t be getting my deep analysis and critical wit. And shut up those of you who are relieved at the thought of a week of no Trevor ramblings. You suck!
OK, sorry. Today, I give you a trailer to a movie that you may feel like you have already seen. Danny Trejo in BAD ASS. Hasn’t Danny Trejo been a bad-ass in every movie he has ever been in? The answer is yes, but he has never delivered all his ass-kicking brilliance with an awkward salt-and-pepper beard on before. I kind of love the tagline: ‘He’s Bad! He’s Old!’ Trejo is one hell of story. A child criminal, he served 11 years in prison for armed robbery and drug charges. But he turned his life around and when he got out started doing consulting for Hollywood films. His rough features made him a natural to play the bad guys in dozens of movies since then. This dude has appeared in everything from the Rodriguez GRINDHOUSE films to HEAT to ROB BURGUNDY. Let’s hear it for one example of the American prison system actually working how it is supposed to! Enjoy.
-Thursday, December 22nd, 2011: TERRA NOVA - So Much Potential...
After a full season of squandered opportunities, TERRA NOVA finally showed us what kind of awesome genre show it could be, while still reminding us how much it sucks. Tricky balance, huh? I thought that the pilot was interesting, not fantastic, but the season itself was terrible. The family dynamics were atrociously clichéd, with Exposition Maddy, Ray of Hope Zoe, and Troubled Teen Josh the worst offenders. There is absolutely zero chemistry between the lead, Jim Shannon, and his wife, she seems thrown in there because a network note demanded a bi-racial couple. The show’s internal logic doesn’t make any sense. Originally, it was seen as extremely dangerous to go OTG (Outside The Gates), even if heavily armed, but by the end of the season, people jaunt to and fro out in the jungle day or night. For the most part, the special effects on the dinosaurs were decent, though whoever did the work on this hysterically badly-rendered marlin deserves to be fired. Whenever the plot would accidentaly happen upon anything remotely interesting or challenging, we would veer right back to Jim singing ‘Make the Spider Go Away’ to Zoe as she crawls through an access tube. I thought they were really building a conflicted character with Commander Taylor as some kind of power-hungry dictator, but his edges were eventually softened down to boring dullness. For every creative use of dinosaurs, such as when the rebels (read ‘Others’ from LOST) trained a dinosaur to break down a gate, there was an equally painful example, such as when cawing winged dinos hilariously prevented Jim and his wife from having sex. TN made the Jurassic world boring and safe when it should have been approaching this world with awe and majesty. I remember how cool it was when Kurt Russell and James Spader went through the portal in STARGATE, with that fun star scream sequence. These characters are being thrown across galaxies and if that travel affects them, then it becomes a more momentous moment for us. In the TN pilot, it shocked people to go through the time portal, they needed oxygen masks and time to recover. By the finale, people would cross over thousands of years as easily as they would cross a room. Internal inconsistencies that lessen the drama, just lazy storytelling. That said, I liked Stephen Lang’s gravelly performance as ‘Commander Taylor’. He had one genuine moment of startling pathos in the second or third episode. In that episode, Taylor has lost his memory and reverted back to the war prisoner mindset he used to have. When he is informed that his wife has been dead for 10 years, Taylor immediately tries to cut his own throat. The moment is a shock and a stunning commentary on the emotion of his character. I also think that Jason O’Mara’s performance as ‘Jim Shannon’ is superhumanly good. This guy takes every awful thing the script throws at him, from singing silly songs to making quips, and pulls it all off with charm and a can-do smile. He is up for anything and he is the only reason that this show hangs together at all. Now give him something to really sink his teeth into, please!
Ugh, moving on. The two-part finale (creatively called “Occupation/Resistance”) did try and up the ante a bit. I can look past the stupidity of Taylor’s team guarding the portal, even though it strains credibility to think that they never considered that the bad guys would use a bomb, because it brought us the deadly images of a suicide bomber, a man on fire, and the death of Cara. Wow, was that a joke about Cara?! Jim’s mopey teen Josh has been whining about his girlfriend all season, then when she finally makes it to the past, she is instantly killed off. Kinda sick. The sequence where Jim stumbles around his occupied camp in a blurry, injured state three days later is an evocative and well-filmed bit that belongs in a better show. I thought that the idea of Taylor using bullets that he fired into the bad guys to send written coordinates to the medical team is brilliant and gritty. Really, I was amazed with that level of creativity. And then I liked the gung-ho adaptability of the show when it became a must-defuse-the-bomb race, complete with a cackling bad guy killing harmless dinosaurs and a rocket launcher-wielding physicist. This was good pulpy fun that the show should have used more of, but TN kept paying lip service to the ruthlessness of the bad guy mercs without really showing it. For instance, the beleaguered scientist, Malcolm, tells Jim that he was forced to help the bad guys when they shoved his assistant’s head through a window and let him bleed to death on the hospital floor. That is some brutal stuff there for network TV, but we never really see the soldiers being that ruthless. It’s like the show wanted to pay literal lip service to the evil nature of the mercs, but then never wanted to actually show them being bad. It’s hard to have it both ways.
I actually was moved by Washington’s death. It was pretty clichéd how she stayed behind so that the Shannon’s could escape the compound, but the actress did a great job with her last line to Taylor’s evil son with daddy-problems, “You know, you have your father’s eyes.” Though in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say to an evil genius who hates his father and has a gun to your head. There was an awful scene later where the little girl, Zoe, gives a depressed Commander Taylor a hug, saying she remembered how kind Washington was to her in their survival classes. How much more effective would Washington’s death had been if we had seen that connection scene between Xoe and Washington sometime in the last 9 episodes? I find it fascinating that the TN military is teaching 8 year old kids survival training. Why couldn’t we have had an episode focused on the social ramifications of that instead of boring ‘intrigue’ about the Sixer spy and sex-blocking dinos? The rest of the episode wrapped up okay, with every decent scene being pulled back by another awful family bonding scene. I have to give credit to the show’s finale, which not only had Jim outrunning fireballs to dive back in the portal, but also outrunning a dinosaur in the process. That’s a ballsy double-down on a tired cliché by the writers. I liked the ending, and am curious how a ship bow from the 1800s wound up in the prehistoric. Is there another portal in the Badlands that leads to the 1800s? That could be cool. I think the show cheated by having the portal be an opening to a different past that has no effect on the future. I like ‘butterfly effect’ paradoxes, and the possibility of another portal opening to the past may be a way to introduce that concept back to the show. What is Jim & Co. could travel back to the 1800s and change things so that the future isn’t so bleak and awful. How much fun would that be!? TERRA NOVA’s future is still in doubt, the ratings this year didn’t quite justify its enormous budget. But I hope the network gives it another shot, because I think this show could really be something. There is a heap of untapped potential here if the writers and studio had the balls to tap it, and I don’t think you can say that about a lot of the new shows on television in 2011. Bring it back for another season and let’s take some chances Fox!
-Tuesday, December 20th, 2011: DKR - First Look!
The level of anticipation for the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, reached a fever pitch the day the 2nd film came out and hasn’t abated since. The last few days have dropped even more tantalizing kindling into the fan flame. Now, I enjoy looking online for scoops on upcoming movies and behind-the-scenes clips and spy pics. And most big movies have a massive budget set aside for security to assure that a film’s privacy is maintained. But I have never seen the level of access that fans and spies have had to the filming of DKR. Obviously, part of that is because there is a lot of outdoor shooting in this film, but still, I don’t remember bootleg videos and spy pics of the Joker and Batman fighting in the streets of Chicago from the last film. We’ve seen lots of video of the scenes shot in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, and a good amount of pictures taken from a climactic snowy battle shot in downtown Pittsburgh. Everyone who is a fan has a passionate opinion about the footage they are seeing. What makes me laugh is how fans are saying how fake everything looks, from this shot of Bane and Batman fighting in fake snow on a hot Pittsburgh summer day, to the dodgy looking makeup on Bane’s neck. When I would be on sets back on the day, it always amazed me how false and hokey everything felt. It’s hard to get into the emotion of an intimate scene when big black cameras are 6 inches away from the actor’s face and a pudgy PA is farting in the background. Fight scenes without music and sound effects just looks silly. And makeup needs to look a certain way, possibly fake, in real life in order to work appropriately on screen. I remember shooting once with a camera that shot in green tones for some reason; I think because the tint somehow improved the HD. In response, the makeup people needed to heighten the reds in the actor’s makeup. The entire cast looked ludicrous on set, like they were vacationing from Mars, but it looked fine in camera. What I am saying is that sometimes films look impressive when they are being filmed, like TRANSFORMERS. But most films look very silly and fake while filming, before the post-production techniques of editing/sound effects/music/CGI/color correction are employed.
It should be clear how effective that snowy fight scene looks from the recently released DKR trailer. Oh boy, this looks good, easily the best trailer this Batman trilogy has produced. The second film wowed me with its scope, how it really made me feel that I was in on an entire city that was held hostage. Nolan appears to be upping the ante here, pushing the time frame 8 years later from the events of the second film and truly making this an epic end to his trilogy. I was as surprised as anyone to hear that Nolan had chosen Bane to be the villain of the third film. Sure, in the comic he was depicted as a fascinating and brilliantly sadistic strategist who eventually broke Batman’s back after crushing his spirit. But did you see Bane in BATMAN & ROBIN?! Pretty much depicted as a silly joke. And how could he follow the unbelievable performance of Heath Ledger as that terrifying agent of chaos, the Joker? Nolan seems to have adhered to the comic book interpretation of the character and also updated his costume from that ridiculous Mexican mask. I love how the sweet song of our National Anthem plays over the beginning scenes, it provides an interesting contrast between a city’s innocence and the evil that seeks to destroy it. Michael Caine has always been an unheralded part of this series. His ‘Alfred’ is kind, intelligent and loving, being the centering rock of family from which Bruce Wayne can operate from. Could you imagine Batman losing Alfred? He’d go freaking nuts! And I love how much emotion Caine puts into his words with Bruce Wayne in the opening parts of this trailer. I am not a fan of Anne Hathaway. I find her desperate need to please amazingly annoying, and I don’t think she fits the sexy requirements of Catwoman, but Nolan is clearly going for a different interpretation of the character. I like her line here, it’s a dark and angry threat, uttered in a whisper to Bruce Wayne, that would fit coming out of the mouth of an 99%er protesting out on the street these days. That field disintegration looks impressive, but I am hoping that it is only a tease to the larger set pieces of the film. At least Hines Ward survives to score another day! The prison chant lends a great movement to the last flashes of the trailer, culminating in a loud buzzing reveal of that iconic Nolan score that still sends shivers of joy down my spine. Not sure what role Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play, but I like the serious mien of his character in that one shot of him opening a door. I like the reveal of the Bat-Chopper, since we have already seen that particular vehicle in all the spy pics. In all, this is a damn exciting if traditional trailer that titillates without telling and all but assures that my butt will be sitting in that IMAX theater on opening night.
Just wanted to say a quick word about the 6 minute preview of THE DARK KNIGHT that is being show in front to MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL on a few IMAX screens. The in-flight airplane heist that starts the prologue is stunningly performed. Nolan has guys jumping from plane to plane and tearing off wings in what seems like purely practical effect sequences. I’m assuming there is some invisible CGI in here, but the physicality of the stunts made me giddy. But of course, the big issue everyone is talking about: What the hell is Bane saying?! Speaking out of a creepy mask that synths and strangles his seemingly British accent, I could understand maybe every third word out of Bane’s mouth. Nolan has gone on record as saying that he purposely made Bane’s dialogue hard to understand so that the audience would have to play catch-up. He said that it isn’t necessary for the audience to hear every word as long as they can keep up with the gist of the scene. Honestly, this sounds like haughty director bullshit to me. I’ll wait to judge until the film is released, but this is an issue that really needs to be fixed before opening day. There wasn’t as much thrilling character dynamics in the first 6 minutes as there was in the opening to the second film, but this still seemed like an effective introduction to the character of Bane. I still prefer the trailer, but I am glad that I got to get a taste of how big Nolan is going with this movie. It’s going to be one hell of a ride!
-Friday, December 16th, 2011: IRON GIANT - Best Movies
In honor of Brad Bird’s first live-action feature, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, being released this weekend, I thought it would be fun to go back and look at his first animated feature, THE IRON GIANT. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite movies of all-time and actually so is THE INCREDIBLES, another Brad Bird film. What can I say, the man has a good track record! But the THE IRON GIANT especially is a heartwarming and action-packed film about simple morals and great characters in the finest tradition of animation. It’s pretty clear right off the bat that this isn’t a Disney-type animated film. There are no songs, no funny sidekicks, and the humor, especially regarding Dean, the 50s beatnik, is surprisingly adult. The film eventually faces nuclear annihilation which is quite a serious topic for an animated tale to tackle. I’m always immediately struck by the sophisticated and natural nature of this film. Yes, it’s a cartoon about a giant robot in Maine, but look at the rehearsed and bored way Hogarth answers the phone. It reminds me of the same rehearsed line I would always say when I was a kid answering the phone, “Sagan residence, may I ask who is calling?” It’s a small realistic touch, but it really worked to bring me into this world. And instead of being a fairy tale setting, the movie is set in the 1950s, during the height of the space race and the rise of the atomic era. I love the old horror movie Hogarth watches about the Evil Brain, it is a perfect little parody, from the awful acting of the chisel-jawed hero to the schlocky scare music. And the ‘Duck & Cover’ class video about how to survive an atomic bomb blast is a great satire on the kinds of videos that were actually played to kids during that era.
Brad Bird always does excellent character work, and everyone here feels like a fleshed-out person. I’ve always especially loved the different facets of Hogarth, the incredibly funny yet deeply twisted voicework done by Christopher McDonald as ‘Kent Mansley’, and the laid-back blasé ‘tude of Harry Connick Jr. as ‘Dean’. Even stock characters like John Mahoney’s ‘General Roqard’ get a few great lines that deepen their characters. I used to work in a job where I would occasionally talk with John Mahoney on the phone. He used to say that the best movie he has ever been involved with was THE IRON GIANT. I can’t tell you how much cooler he is to me now that he told me that. One of my favorite things about the character interaction is that even though Hogarth is a kid with a single mother, there isn’t a big plot point made about his father. There is one quick shot that shows his dad getting into a plane’s cockpit, so we can assume that he died a long time ago in the war. One of the themes running through the film is how the Giant acts as a much better father-figure to father-less Hogarth than the human Mansley ever could. When Dean finally mans up and becomes the man he is supposed to be, he eventually takes the place of the Robot. There is a complicated psychology to Hogarth and who he latches on to that is never ever referred to in the dialogue. How cool is that?! A whole host of emotional issues that the writers let the audience discover for themselves instead of ramming it down our throats, I mean, that is just sophisticated storytelling in any medium. And the Giant himself, voiced by a young Vin Diesel in, sadly, his most nuanced role is a wonder. He is a computer animation in a traditionally animated picture, but I think that different type of animation makes him even more other-worldly. As a clear precursor to Wall-E, the Giant is curious, innocent, goofy and sweet, with a yearning to be good. He is charming and selfless and he is animated to perfection. The Giant looks like a typical campy 50s robot should look like, and that’s part of the fun. This is what every kid imagines his own giant robot to look like, so it feels almost like wish fulfillment to see a robot like this. I love the small details of his armored hulk and the awesome regenerative and destructive powers he possesses. The sound mix is also key with the Giant, always making him a strange but compelling mix of creaks and groans. Even just when he stands up, it is an impressive sight and sound. Look at the lake scene, and the impressive sounds made by the splash of the Giant’s cannonball. He is so damn big, that he empties the freaking lake and that feat is all delivered through sound and action. Plus, I love Dean’s quote at the end of this sequence to being found in a lawn chair in the middle of the road, “Yeah? YEAH?!?” It’s hard for me to be more specific about the animation, but look at this clip, at 12 seconds in, when the Giant believes that Hogarth is dead. Listen to the whimpers, the frenzied head movement, the shaking hands, it’s a tremendously sad and human reaction that is all due to the confluence of computer and sound designers. Just amazing work.
Around the ¾ mark, this flick gets big. We have death, explosions, jets, atomic missiles, ray guns and battleships. But the movie still hinges on a completely selfless decision by the Giant. We don’t get a great deal of backstory to the Giant, but he was clearly meant to be a warrior. In a scene that recalls some of the beauty of BAMBI, Hogarth teaches the Giant a simple lesson; that he can choose who he wants to be, that he doesn’t need to be a gun, that he can be Superman and not Atomo. Look at that epic image, at 44 seconds in, the low POV of the Giant with the missile screaming overhead. This used to be our country’s greatest fear, drilled into us for years during the Cold War. Just because we have new fears doesn’t mean this goes away and the idea of the town sitting quietly as the missile slowly descends is a horrifying one. What on earth would you do if you have 2 minutes left to live and no hope of survival? Are we really being asked this question by a cartoon?! And its just such a lovely end, with the Giant tearing up towards that missile to save the town, quietly whispering the name of his idol to himself, the hero he is choosing to be: Superman. He whispers that name with a sense of wonder and reverence, then closes his eyes and smiles. Man, it gives me chills just writing about it, the moment is so earned and beautiful. But we have to remember that this is an animated movie, so we do still get that lovely epilogue that promises that somewhere in the arctic, the Giant is smiling and slowly putting himself back together. There is so much heart and innocence and heroism in this movie, and it isn’t afraid to portray humans as cowardly violent little gnats who need to learn a lesson from a sentient gun. This isn’t subtle messaging here, but its big and epic storytelling that still manages to pack an emotional wallop. It’s hard to be ready for this film, it really sneaks up on you, but I do so love the simple story and the incisive characterizations. And I can still be a little boy and dream that somewhere out there is an awesome 100 foot tall robot that just wants to be friends with me. This movie was another big step for me in terms of cinematic education. THE IRON GIANT proves that we can fall just as hard for watercolors and pixels as we can for real people. And instead of that being a sad commentary on human connection, I find it a wonderful example of our creativity and empathy. I will definitely get to INCREDIBLES sometime later, but I’m looking forward to the action and heart Brad Bird is able to craft with the M:I franchise this weekend.
-Wednesday, December 14th, 2011: GI JOE: RETALIATION - Awesome Trailer
It’s amazing how much I can be influenced by a good trailer. Or, to be more precise, what I think of as a good trailer. I was never much of a GI:JOE kid growing up, it seemed a little too goofy, I was far more into HE-MAN. So I really don’t know the difference between Jinx and Duke and Cobra and Snake Eyes or whatever. In fact, I am kind of amazed I remembered that many names. The first GI:JOE film, directed by Stephen Sommers of MUMMY fame, was abysmal. Seriously, one of the worst action films I have seen in a long time, and I see a lot of action films. I mean really, Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans as the stars?! I feel bad for Rachel Nichols, a girl in my class who I barely knew back in college. She had such a promising career start with a lead role in the later seasons of ALIAS, but is now being shoved into movies like this or P2 or CONAN. I’m sure the money is good, but she should go back and get a good television series to star on for a few years. The only fun parts I remember from the first JOE film had to do with the Accelerator Suits. These HALO-esque boday armor suits allowed the actors to bounce around cityscapes with the demented glee of cartoon characters. Fortunately, the cheesy visual effects allowed them to actually be cartoon characters. But there was a fun sense of abandon with every action scene that revolved around those poorly rendered suits catapulting through the streets of Paris, surely leaving dozens of dead innocent people in their wake.
Which brings us to the recently released trailer for the sequel, GI JOE: RETALIATION. And dare I say, despite my surprise at the existence of this sequel, this is one hell of an upgrade. The Rock, currently content in his career to be the saver of franchises, brings some much-needed testosteroney muscle to the flick. You need someone who has muscle cords that seemed forged from battleship armor plates to lead your team of Joes, and The Rock fits that bill. You need someone who can sit peacefully underwater while bullets zing past him, and that man is The Rock. You need someone who can carry a gatling gun on top of a truck, TERMINATOR 2-style, and The Rock can do that. And fresh from her short-lived, never-seen stint as TV’s buxomly Wonder Woman, Adrianne Palicki brings a nice jolt of tomboyish estrogen to the group. There seems to be grit and dirt in this film’s action as opposed to the high-gloss sheen from the original. Granted, it is pretty cheesy to see the Cobra flags falling down over the White House windows, but I’ll let that pass. Snake Eyes is still in there, plus the white ninja and the red girl ninja, so I assume that should satisfy fans of the source material. There is a tease of a fantastically ludicrous cliff-face fight scene that just might equal the accelerator suits in terms of pure kinetic fun. Those effects still look a little fake, but the film has time to clean that up before next summer. And to add some classiness to your movie about plastic action figures, just add a hearty serving of Bruce Willis at his most laconic and smug. And come on, as the end note to the teaser, Palicki gives one of the best f%&# you eye-rolls in the history of movie trailers. Seriously, that is a split-second of well-played, perfectly timed irritation, and it’s always good to see a former FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS actor playing something well.
But the reason this all holds together is that bass-growling remix of a White Stripes song. It makes everything feel big and gnarly and kickass and cool. Music is the lynchpin to an effective trailer, which is why I am so confused when so many films (I’m looking at you WRATH OF THE TITANS) fail to use music that sets a compelling tone. The trailer is your first exposure to the public; these things shouldn’t be slapped together, but crafted with as much meticulous care as the movie itself. Take a look at this trailer for LOCK-OUT, some French thriller starring a smartass Guy Pearce (god I would love to see more of this guy!). The only reason anyone knows about this movie is because of this trailer that dares to play with the expected format a bit. There isn’t much new in the art of the trailer, but I like that there are still some people out there who are trying to push the boundaries of what a movie preview can be. It reminds me of a movie in 2000 called SUPERNOVA. Don’t worry if you don’t remember it, I’m not sure if anyone actually ever saw it, including me, but I do remember the trailer. Apparently this EVENT HORIZON-clone was so awful that the director, Walter Hill, asked the studio to put a pseudonym (Thomas Lee) on the posters and prints so that his reputation wouldn’t go down with the film. But it does have a decent B-level cast, with James Spader, Angela Bassett, and Peter Facinelli. The movie is supposed to be a horror movie set in space, which is why I was so confused when the trailer for the film shows violence and people dying, all set to the jaunty tune, “Mama Told Me Not to Come” by Three Dog Night. What kind of tone were they going for here?! Was the film just so bad that the studio decided to spoof their own film before it was even released? Not sure, but the trailer still cracks me up as one of the more misguided trailer ideas I’ve ever seen. End of massive tangent. The GI:JOE sequel trailer certainly doesn’t break any new ground for movie trailers, but it offers better actors, intriguing action, and a compellingly sound mix that makes me think that this film may have a groovy fun tone that heralds a good time in the theaters. Much like the HUNTSMAN trailer I wrote about a few weeks back, the music really sucks me into a sequel that I originally had no interest in ever seeing. Well-played!
-Tuesday, December 13th, 2011: KESHA & BOB DYLAN - WTF?!?
One of the cheesiest and most dependable moments in movies is the final big speech that wraps up a character’s emotions and declares their intentions. It’s a cathartic moment, one that acts as a cheat for the audience, a quick and easy way to sum up the movie and the journey of the main character. But I am also a sucker for these big speeches and one of my favorites is the Aaaron Sorkin-written final speech in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT. In the speech, there is a great quote about how infuriating the right to free speech can be.“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” It’s tough, but it allows our country to tolerate completely different points of view. We may not understand a viewpoint that opposes ours, in fact, we may hate the fact that an opposing opinion exists at all, but the rules of our country demand that we tolerate it. And that is something pretty cool in this world. Which brings me to Ke$ha.
Didn’t see that coming, did you? In honor of Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary, a 4-CD set of Bob Dylan cover songs is being released, songs sung by a variety of modern artists. One of the strangest choices in the album was to have Ke$ha cover the seminal song ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’. Ke-dollar sign-ha is a third-rate Gaga copy, trashy and really unattractive, but I will admit that her songs (if you can even call them songs) have extremely catchy beats that were surely expertly crafted by her litany of producers. Perfect mindless workout music. So much of her act comes off as calculated. Even her ‘Blow’ video about unicorns and James van der Beek feels like it’s trying too hard to be random and surreal. If you want true video insanity, better to stick with The Darkness. Anyways, she approached the Dylan song as if it were a suicide note from a female perspective, slowing it down and stripping it bare. She went home and channeled all her loneliness and regret into a raw version of the song which you can hear snippets of here. She appeared to really get into it, even crying while she was recording in GarageBand. What I find interesting are some of the reactions this version has already received.
Here is a small review from my entertainment bible, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY:
The twist is that Ke$ha’s cover of Dylan’s venerable talking blues “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is actually pretty good. She slows it way, way down and turns it into a slow-burning and devastating torch song, shifting the tone away from Dylan’s flippant indignation into incredible sadness.
Then we have a review from Melinda Newman at Hitfix:
Her cover of “Don’t Think Twice,” which you can hear snippets of in the below video, courtesy of Rolling Stone, is, if it’s possible, even worse that we’d imagined. She’s overwrought and distraught and mistakes pausing and singing really slowly for emoting. She has talked often about her love for Dylan, and she tells Rolling Stone that she thought about turning the song into a suicide note of sorts. That information is helpful, but it doesn't make the interpretation any better. Ke$ha, whose recently leaked material has featured her singing more than talking, has every right, of course, to record the Dylan classic in any way she wants, but has she listened to the original? Part of what makes Dylan’s take so devastating is the breeziness that he tries, unsuccessfully, to impart as he heads on down the road, knowing full well that he couldn’t provide the woman with what she needed. The key is the last paragraph, when he turns downright bitter about her “wasting his precious time” although he still tries to shrug it off.
Two sources that I consider respectable with two wildly diverging opinions. ‘Devastating torch song’ vs. ‘worse than we’d imagined’. Sure, politics could be in play here, whether hating on Ke$ha is ‘in’ or not at the moment, or if the websites are pressuring the reviewers. But I don’t think that is happening here, I think these are two honest opinions. I love that we live in a place that has room for two diametrically opposed opinions. But I know you are waiting with bated breath to hear what my opinion is and honestly . . . I lean more towards the point of view that this is a piece of crap. Look, I appreciate the fact that Ke$ha’s version seem to have come from a place of emotion and that it means a lot to her. I applaud the fact that she even has that little bit of profundity. But just because she was crying after having a tough day doing interviews and singing ‘Tik Tok’ for an audience doesn’t grant her unique insight into the song. She just used an existing emotion to sing the song for a manipulative end. I think its telling that she doesn’t really talk about what the lyrics mean to her. She talked about the suicide thing, but it sounds like she gave up that angle when she sat down to record this. So why are the words affecting her so? I’d argue that it isn’t the song or the lyrics that are affecting her, that in the kind of mood that struck her that night, she could have done a stripped-down version of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and still been bawling her eyes out. I agree with Newman that slowing and stripping a song bare is often used for cover songs because it’s a shortcut to emotion. I’m not particularly upset that Ke$ha (god I hate writing her name!) changed the meaning of the song, I’m just upset that she has no idea what meaning she changed it to! I do love Dylan’s original song, how his attempt to remain jaunty and upbeat are belied by the bitterness of his words. The complexity of Dylan’s intentions are open to interpretation, and I enjoy Newman’s opinion, but there is no doubt that whether the lyrics are primarily driven by self-loathing or pettiness, they are still uniquely devastating. Sorry Ke$ha, I just don’t think you are capable of that kind of depth, but I acknowledge that you gave it a shot. I think you are confused and maybe a little scared about the song that came out of you that night, but that doesn’t make it a good cover song.
-Monday, December 12th, 2011: HANNAH - Weird, Confusing, and Fun
This cool little flick almost worked for me, but fell apart in the end. While baring some superficial similarities to KICK-ASS, HANNA takes a much more artistic and subtle approach to the depiction of a child assassin trained by her father. This is a thriller, but it’s handled with a quiet European sensibility. There are moments of shocking violence, but there are shots of awe and beauty as well. I loved the opening of the film, depicting a hardened child slaughtering a deer with a jump-shock title screen that seemed straight out of Tarantino’s playbook. But the film isn’t interested in being pulpy, it tries out a variety of film styles never quite decides on one all the way through the ending. Hanna’s breakout is gleefully extreme, but I really liked how the film transformed into a road trip of self-discovery. The scenes of Hanna and the travelling family are well-crafted, depicting a girl looking in on what a normal crazy family unit looks like. I kept expecting the clichés to break in. I thought the family would discover Hanna in the caravan and kick her out. I thought the young girl in the family would fight with Hanna once Hanna punched the boy who tried to kiss her. Hell, I even thought the family would be killed by Marissa, but their fate was left unclear. And what was with that anyways? Couldn’t we have gotten a little closure on what happened to the family? And why was the awesomely creepy whistling sporty-clad assassin ‘Isaacs,’ covered in blood during the family interrogation scene when none of the family members appeared to be injured? But the ending disappointed me. It felt very scattered and long. And while I loved the forest and the carnival equipment, especially the showdown on the railroad with the wolf’s head, I didn’t like the random inclusion of the Grimm character and the sudden ending. I wanted to see what happened next to Hanna, or to at least get a sense of what the hell she was going to do now. Instead, we got a kick-ass callback to the deer’s death in the beginning, but the coolness of that final shot didn’t make up for the lack of resolution. I thought that there weren’t enough answers given about Hanna’s past. I imagined that Marissa had a more personal history with Hanna to be so obsessed with her capture, but that thread was disappointedly dropped. I also wanted more of an epic battle between the father and Isaacs, but that fight was only used as part of a montage.
I have only seen one other film directed by Joe Wright, ATONEMENT, but these two films share a number of traits that seem to be common in Wright films. Most impressively, he has a strong talent in crafting intimate and raw scenes between characters, mostly through the use of extreme close-up and handheld cameras. In ATONEMENT, it was the heated library love scene between Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. I love the intimate details of this scene, especially the little shot of Knightley being so taken away with the moment that she is lifted right out of her heels. In HANNA, there is a charged scene in a tent between Hanna and the family girl, Sophie. It’s an odd scene, an intimate conversation between friends that plays in currents of Sapphic eroticism. Hanna has no idea what intimacy is, judging by how she reacted when a boy tried to kiss her, and here she is swept up with Sophie’s shy experiments in sexuality. I can’t quite get a handle on this scene, but it is intimate without ever becoming exploitive. Wright also loves to craft music to suit the story. One of the best parts of ATONEMENT was its staccato sound mix that spoke of pounding keys on a typewriter. In HANNA, Wright employed the Chemical Brothers to create a soundscape for the film, creating some truly eerie action sequences in the process. There was one set amongst a bunch of containers where a henchman’s whistle turned into a piercing driving beat that drove the ensuing battle. Finally, Wright is also know, for better or for worse, for indulging in unnecessarily long tracking shots. In ATONEMENT, there is the Dunkirk sequence, which just feels showy to me. It doesn’t add to the story, other than hammering home the point that war sucks, and takes up valuable running time that could be better spent with the main characters. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, and this complicated yet technically accomplished shot pulled me right out of the story and reminded me that I was watching a film. There is a long tracking shot in HANNA that works much better. It follows Hanna’s father as he steps off a bus, enjoying the feel of the city, and then becomes increasingly more paranoid as he sees men following him, culminating in a stunning one-shot fight sequence in the subway. While I was still distracted by the filmmaking technique here, I thought it demonstrated the father’s journey from wonder to action and how he brought his attackers into a location that more favored a single combatant. And it is so refreshing to see a well-choreographed, minimally edited fight scene that plays out on the screen with minimal confusion and a clear sense of geography. I thought the acting was excellent, especially by Saoirse Ronan as ‘Hanna.’ She has such presence and talent, Ronan is able to seamlessly depict a fractured, vulnerable, ruthless child assassin. Eric Bana was serviceable and Cate Blanchett was a little too hammy, but I didn’t really think that was her fault. Ugh, what was that scene where Blanchett was brushing her teeth so hard that she started to bleed?! Yuck! With a tighter ending, HANNA could have been extraordinary. As it is, the film is a thoughtful above-average thriller with creative action and a compelling central figure.
-Thursday, December 8th, 2011: IN TREATMENT - Sunil: Week 3 Breakdown
It still surprises me how much I enjoy this show. I’m usually all about the action, and the big emotional moments, and the carnage, and the plot twists, etc. This is always just people talking, telling stories, exploring feelings, and I still find it engaging. And I really mean that. I feel like, in a way, that I may have started watching so I could feel ‘proud’ of myself, liking a show of just dialogue. But taking the time to explore personalities, with all these little attitude bombs sprinkled throughout a person’s psyche, it is all just so wonderfully compelling. This show tends to build up in my DVR, almost like it’s a chore, but when I sit down and start watching, thinking I’ll only go through one, I end up doing a whole week just to see what new aspect will be revealed about the patient, or especially, the therapist, Paul.
Everyone has their favorites for each season. I tend to really enjoy the unique people, the ones who get under Paul’s skin. Like the pilot, Alex in Season 1. Or John Mahoney’s character in Season 2. Or that wonderful scene when Paul takes April to the hospital in Season 2. This year, I really loved Sunil.
What a wonderful idea to cast a non-American. I had never noticed that before, but there really had never been a foreign patient on the show before. Irrfan Khan comes at this character from someplace that I am not familiar with and the results are staggering. He gives Sunil a quiet physicality, I feel like I could turn the sound off, just watching what Khan does with his hands, and still be intrigued. Each movement carries weight, be it making tea, rolling his cigarettes, or touching his goatee. It feels like a process, there is a formality with each movement, it really is tremendous acting. Then we get to his slow and thoughtful speech. His foreign viewpoint allows for these wonderfully poignant turns of phrase. At one point, Sunil describes pain as being like “a spool of hot thread being pulled through my heart.” Looking through Sunil’s eyes for half an hour, I can see the ridiculousness of the TV show SURVIVOR, or look at the American tradition of a rock concert in a different light.
In Week 3, Paul is trying to get to the bottom of the antagonism between Sunil and Sunil’s daughter-in-law, Julia. It soon becomes clear that Sunil has an unhealthy obsession with her, something to do with his dead wife. At one point Paul takes a shot and proposes that Sunil might have feelings for Julia. Sunil starts laughing quietly with his head down. He laughs for awhile, until it doesn’t sound like laughter anymore, it sounds like crying. His head is down, and these emotions are just pouring out in this hitching cry-laugh. Paul doesn’t know what to do and neither do we. It’s like a deer caught in headlights, we feel frozen, waiting for . . . whatever-the-hell this is to go away. Sunil calms down, collects himself, collects his things, and leaves. The scene isn’t over the top, its revealing. It opens a door for Sunil and allows himself to talk about things in later weeks with Paul that he hasn’t discussed in 30 years. I really wish I could find a clip of this moment, but for now, just enjoy the mannerisms of Sunil's session. Really a tremendous moment and I was just blown away by the skill in Irrfan Khan’s delicate portrayal.
-Tuesday, December 2nd, 2011: WALKING DEAD - Poor Sophia
Oh well done, midseason finale of WALKING DEAD, well done! Even for someone like me, who was a fan of the quieter farm interlude that has taken up the whole first half of season, I was getting a little bored having everyone stuck at this farm. The characters haven’t really grown, they just seemed to stagnate, unable to move their lives forward while still searching for the little girl, Sophia, who ran away from the group in the first episode of Season 2. A reviewer put it well the other day, noting that Sophia has now been missing for a majority of the entire WALKING DEAD series. That’s kind of ridiculous. Well the events of this finale should certainly get this merry band moving again! A lot of the episode continued the quieter story beats that have been built at the farm. I liked the back-and-forth between Glenn and Maggie, they are pretty much the best part of the story for me at this point. And the writers continue to mine gold from Glenn’s inability to tell a lie. I am also really enjoying the unhinged physicality of Shane, this guy is just completely losing his shit at this point and the redemption of Daryl. But Lori is still just the worst person on earth and she is dragging Rick down with her. And I honestly did not see the whole point of that scene between Dale and Shane in the woods. What was Dale trying to do here? In the end, it seemed like the writers forcing a confrontation between characters just to create some drama and piss Shane off. I hate it when conflict feels manufactured, its embarrassing.
The scenario is this. Old Man Herschel owns a farm with his family and takes in Rick’s ragtag group of survivors. The last half of a season has dealt with the problems that have arisen between the worldliness of Rick’s group and the sheltered nature of Herschel and his families. At the start of this finale, it is revealed to Rick’s group that Herschel has been keeping the walking dead members of his family ‘alive’ and locked up in a nearby barn. Herschel foolishly believes that the stricken dead can one day be saved or healed and he refuses to kill them. Struggling to understand Herschel and ease their troubled alliance, Rick accompanies Herschel into the woods to capture some living dead. Back at the farm, Shane goes crazy. He grabs his guns and marches on the walker barn, determined to kill these zombies. Rick and Herschel get back on the farm just in time to confront Shane. In a devastatingly effective demonstration, Shane shows Herschel that his hope for the walking dead is ludicrously naïve. Shane throws open the barn doors and as the walkers pour out, searching for human flesh, Shane and Rick’s group start the slaughter. I liked the little moment when Glenn looks at Maggie for permission before joining in the shooting. These two are really forming a bond in the midst of all this horror. The massacre ends and everything gets quiet. Then one more zombie shuffles out of the barn. It’s a zombified Sophia.
Wow. So for half a season, Sophia has been locked up in this barn while Rick’s group risked their lives searching the woods for a girl who is already dead? That is messed up, dark, and also kind of brilliant. For all the faults the writers have made this season, this depressing twist makes up for a lot of them. I wonder how long Herschel has known that Rick’s search was hopeless. The group stands in shock as the lay eyes upon Sophia. I love the pulsing music and the dread in this scene, the camera work is magnificent. Sophia is the slowly approaching spectre of their future deaths. It’s majestic and so so sad. And Rick, nearly neutered at this point by Lori and Herschel’s delusions, shows that he is still the true leader here. The only one who can do what needs to be done without losing himself. Big bad Shane stands by speechless as Rick grits his teeth and walks towards Sophia. He pulls his gun out, looks in anguish at the little girl he failed to protect, and shoots her in the head. It’s a callback to the very first scene in the show, and it reminds us that Rick is our center, and if he fails, everyone dies. What a wonderfully horrendous twist that a character’s redemption rides on his ability to shoot a little girl. That rack focus on Rick’s face and the barrel of the gun is beautiful as is the long high pullback of the entire twisted tableau. Our heroes are shocked, torn, and betrayed, unsure of their next step, not even sure how to begin to comprehend their grief. But this is a tough show, determined to show us the kind of person one becomes when forced to kill to survive. I hope we remember this shocking moment as the point where THE WALKING DEAD became something vital, something emotional, and something revelatory. See you in February!
-Monday, December 1st, 2011: Super 8 - The 00's E.T.
Oh wow, this is the summer movie I should have seen in theaters. How could I have seen TRANSFORMERS and FAST 5 and THOR and somehow not found time to see SUPER 8, a movie that was more genuine and heartfelt than the three of those films put together. Really, this film was aimed right at someone like me, combining nostalgic family dynamics and playing them against a sci-fi background. Directed by JJ Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg under the Amblin banner, it would be easy to write SUPER 8 off as an E.T. ripoff. And certainly, there are a ton of callbacks and riffs that remind me of E.T. or GOONIES or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but the movie is so much more than that. Just like it’s supposed to, it made me miss my childhood. All the trouble we’d get into, or the wild things we could imagine, or how the perfume of a passing girl could inspire dozens of fervently written but unsent love letters. I never made movies when I was a kid, but in my twenty, I loved to make small little goofy films with my brother and sister. I love how these kids are so passionate about a silly zombie movie, obsessed with making it bigger, totally convinced that they are making great art. There was one short I did about a homicidal penguin where we became convinced that we were doing something great. You get caught up in the magic of filming, the celluloid possibilities. When the train comes barreling down the tracks, I get completely caught up with the director as he smiles with glee and shouts, “Production value!” and immediately starts rolling tape. And how cool is that chunky director, Charles, and that he never gets mocked for his weight or has to do the Truffle Shuffle, this fat kid is in command here.
The writing also harkens back to the amazing script written for E.T. The dialogue isn’t quite at the eerily intuitive level of E.T., but the writers of SUPER 8 get really close to nailing childhood. The adventures, the silly jokes, the talking over one-another, the smart-ass comments and minor squabbles. I remember watching E.T. as a kid and thinking that someone had recorded conversations between me and my friends and played them on screen. There is a lot of that here, the same familiar patter that makes a film world feel lived-in. I read a write-up on E.T. once that explains what I am trying to say far better than I could. The Aintitcool.com Contributor ‘Nordling’ writes:
“Here's something about E.T., and only a few, few other movies... it gets childhood intrinsically, so completely RIGHT. High praise indeed for Melissa Mathison's script, which has the cadence and the smart-assery that is inherent in every kid. Childhood is messy and joyful, dangerous and crude. Everything is truly an adventure, and nothing is certain. The kids cuss, like I certainly did. They ride their bikes recklessly, just one skid or sharp turn away from slamming into the pavement and serious injury. There is a sense of danger every day. And when you're a kid, you LOVE it. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, like waking up a summer's day and having no idea what the day will bring. Spielberg nailed that. When he replaced the guns with walkie-talkies in 2002's re-release, I wasn't so upset about the fact that he altered his classic movie so much as I was that he completely took out the sense of danger that as children we thrived upon, and enjoyed, and ultimately learned from. Are the guns inappropriate? Of course they are. That's why it works. Those kids were afraid for their lives. Wasn't it glorious? To be the hero? To genuinely risk something? Kids understand that, better than people realize. And, so we watched, and so we were thrilled. We weren't talked down to, or patronized. And we loved it.”
It’s a wonderful write-up, and expression of our sepia-tinted view of childhood mishaps. I think SUPER 8 catches a lot of the same things. Another thing to note with this film is that the child acting is stupendous with one particular standout being Elle Fanning as ‘Alice’. She is that girl that you were obsessed with as a small boy, always afraid to talk to, never imagining that she might find you interesting too. She has an ethereal quality, she reminds me a bit of Kirsten Dunst in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. This sounds silly, but Fanning has one scene in SUPER 8 that is, so far, the best acting I have seen by a woman this year. In the scene, Alice is watching some home videos with Joe that show a lot of Joe’s dead mother. Both kids are trying to understand this tragedy that took Joe’s mom away and they both struggle to understand why their fathers can’t face each other. Alice is looking at the screen, away from Joe, and starts to cry as she describes how she wishes her father had died in the accident instead of Joe’s mother. She struggles through, tears streaming down her face, but intent on getting out what she has to say. There is so much going on in her face. She’s embarrassed for crying. She occasionally has to stop so that the sorrow in her voice won’t seep into her words. She is so sad, but angry at her father, and filled with so much empathy for Joe’s loss. It’s hard to describe, but I was mesmerized by how much emotion Fanning was able to pour into this scene. We’ve all felt a similar thing. When we are so overcome by emotion that we can’t trust the words coming out of our mouths. So we sit in silence for a bit, struggling to maintain control of ourselves, desperate to maintain a veneer of calmness and composure in front of others. I rarely ever rewind a movie, but I kept going back to this scene and finding more nuance in Fanning’s words and expressions. I can’t find the scene on Youtube yet, but I’ll keep looking, it really is a spectacular piece of acting that should be shown. In the meantime, here is a clip of Alice’s first acting job on Charlie’s zombie film, and like a PG-version of the revelatory audition scene in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, it shows that we have a bright new talent out there.
Some of the other elements of the film didn’t quite work for me. Even though I am an enormous fan of Kyle Chandler from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, I wasn’t convinced by his character arc from distant father to loving one. Same with Alice’s father. It is essential that a Spielberg picture resolve a divide between fathers and sons, but I felt like this played a backseat to the more lovely relationships between Joe and Alice, Joe and his friends, and finally, between Joe and his dead mother. There was such a lovely moment at the end that finally kicked me over into a big leaking mess. The alien is creating his spaceship and the ship is pulling metals from the town to use in its construction. The ship pulls a locket from Joe’s pocket, the last memento he has of his mother. He instinctively grasps the locket, holding it in the air. Joe looks with awe up at the ship, contemplating his friends, his father, and Alice, his face awash in light. And he lets go, the locket whisking away to help a being in pain find peace. It’s supposed to be a big moment, that synergy between the sci-fi and human elements, and I was just so moved by that simple visual expression of Joe moving on from the death of his mother. There is wonder and awe and heartbreaking humanity. It was beautiful.
JJ Abrams gets me. Over the last few years, he has crafted moments in entertainment that have continually moved me to tears with their elegance, beauty, love, and belief in the human spirit. From the final episode of LOST to the opening scene of George Kirk’s sacrifice in STAR TREK to Joe letting go in SUPER 8, Abrams’s sense of redemption and emotion synch right up with me. I know that some people find these moments broad, obvious, and derivative, but I look at these moments and am filled with such a sense of appreciation for an artist who can bring me to those states of being. Those are the kind of moments I want to be creating. What am I doing here behind a desk, writing about other movies!? I should be breaking a story in a room, coming up with those arcs, those devices that incite real emotion in an audience. I want that so bad I can taste it. I look at Abrams and see someone who is doing exactly the kinds of movies I love and want to be creating. I know where I want to be, but how do I get there?
Ugh, enough of the pity party. I could continue to write about all the excellent things I find in SUPER 8. About its great sense of humor, like the terrified line about drugs when the kids realize their driver is to high to drive. Or when the Deputy instructs laughs when someone gives him obvious advice or when he tells his man to listen in to odd radio frequencies and asks the man, “You got that?” and the man honestly responds, “No.” I could talk about the lovely geeky little kid Cary, obsessed with blowing stuff up, but still a hardy dedicated friend. Or the depth added to Charles and Joe’s relationship when they both figure out they are interested in the same girl. Or the intriguing history of the alien. Or the spectacular train crash sequence (it goes on a lot longer in the actual movie). Or the heartbreakingly tender score that reminds me how talented Michael Giacchino truly is. I am unabashedly madly in love with this movie. Yes, there are mistakes and storylines that don’t quite work, but the kindness and adventure and hope that SUPER 8 shamelessly wears on its sleeve draw me in like a moth to the flame. What a fantastic film.